Seymour M. Hersh / The New Yorker – 2006-07-06 09:48:54
One complicating aspect of the multiple-hit tactic, the Pentagon consultant told me, is “the liquefaction problem” — the fact that the soil would lose its consistency owing to the enormous heat generated by the impact of the first bomb. “It will be like bombing water, with its currents and eddies. The bombs would likely be diverted.”
Intelligence has also shown that for the past two years the Iranians have been shifting their most sensitive nuclear-related materials and production facilities, moving some into urban areas, in anticipation of a bombing raid.
“The Air Force is hawking it to the other services,” the former senior intelligence official said. “They’re all excited by it, but they’re being terribly criticized for it.” The main problem, he said, is that the other services do not believe the tactic will work. “The Navy says, ‘It’s not our plan.’ The Marines are against it—they know they’re going to be the guys on the ground if things go south.”
“It’s the bomber mentality,” the Pentagon consultant said. “The Air Force is saying, ‘We’ve got it covered, we can hit all the distributed targets.’ ” The Air Force arsenal includes a cluster bomb that can deploy scores of small bomblets with individual guidance systems to home in on specific targets.
The weapons were deployed in Kosovo and during the early stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Air Force is claiming that the same techniques can be used with larger bombs, allowing them to be targeted from twenty-five thousand feet against a multitude of widely dispersed targets. “The Chiefs all know that ‘shock and awe’ is dead on arrival,” the Pentagon consultant said. “All except the Air Force.”
“Rumsfeld and Cheney are the pushers on this — they don’t want to repeat the mistake of doing too little,” the government consultant with ties to Pentagon civilians told me. “The lesson they took from Iraq is that there should have been more troops on the ground” — an impossibility in Iran, because of the overextension of American forces in Iraq — “so the air war in Iran will be one of overwhelming force.”
Many of the Bush Administration’s supporters view the abrupt change in negotiating policy as a deft move that won public plaudits and obscured the fact that Washington had no other good options. “The United States has done what its international partners have asked it to do,” said Patrick Clawson, who is an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank. “The ball is now in their court — for both the Iranians and the Europeans.” Bush’s goal, Clawson said, was to assuage his allies, as well as Russia and China, whose votes, or abstentions, in the United Nations would be needed if the talks broke down and the US decided to seek Security Council sanctions or a UN resolution that allowed for the use of force against Iran.
“If Iran refuses to re-start negotiations, it will also be difficult for Russia and China to reject a UN call for International Atomic Energy Agency inspections,” Clawson said. “And the longer we go without accelerated IAEA access, the more important the issue of Iran’s hidden facilities will become.” The drawback to the new American position, Clawson added, was that “the Iranians might take Bush’s agreeing to join the talks as a sign that their hard line has worked.”
Clawson acknowledged that intelligence on Iran’s nuclear-weapons progress was limited. “There was a time when we had reasonable confidence in what we knew,” he said. “We could say, ‘There’s less time than we think,’ or, ‘It’s going more slowly.’ Take your choice. Lack of information is a problem, but we know they’ve made rapid progress with their centrifuges.” (The most recent American intelligence estimate is that Iran could build a warhead sometime between 2010 and 2015.)
Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council aide for the Bush Administration, told me, “The only reason Bush and Cheney relented about talking to Iran was because they were within weeks of a diplomatic meltdown in the United Nations. Russia and China were going to stiff us” — that is, prevent the passage of a UN resolution. Leverett, a project director at the New America Foundation, added that the White House’s proposal, despite offering trade and economic incentives for Iran, has not “resolved any of the fundamental contradictions of US policy.”
The precondition for the talks, he said — an open-ended halt to all Iranian enrichment activity — “amounts to the President wanting a guarantee that they’ll surrender before he talks to them. Iran cannot accept long-term constraints on its fuel-cycle activity as part of a settlement without a security guarantee” — for example, some form of mutual non-aggression pact with the United States.
Leverett told me that, without a change in US policy, the balance of power in the negotiations will shift to Russia. “Russia sees Iran as a beachhead against American interests in the Middle East, and they’re playing a very sophisticated game,” he said. “Russia is quite comfortable with Iran having nuclear fuel cycles that would be monitored, and they’ll support the Iranian position” — in part, because it gives them the opportunity to sell billions of dollars’ worth of nuclear fuel and materials to Tehran. “They believe they can manage their long- and short-term interests with Iran, and still manage the security interests,” Leverett said. China, which, like Russia, has veto power on the Security Council, was motivated in part by its growing need for oil, he said. “They don’t want punitive measures, such as sanctions, on energy producers, and they don’t want to see the US take a unilateral stance on a state that matters to them.”
But, he said, “they’re happy to let Russia take the lead in this.” (China, a major purchaser of Iranian oil, is negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal with Iran for the purchase of liquefied natural gas over a period of twenty-five years.) As for the Bush Administration, he added, “unless there’s a shift, it’s only a question of when its policy falls apart.”
It’s not clear whether the Administration will be able to keep the Europeans in accord with American policy if the talks break down. Morton Abramowitz, a former head of State Department intelligence, who was one of the founders of the International Crisis Group, said, “The world is different than it was three years ago, and while the Europeans want good relations with us, they will not go to war with Iran unless they know that an exhaustive negotiating effort was made by Bush. There’s just too much involved, like the price of oil. There will be great pressure put on the Europeans, but I don’t think they’ll roll over and support a war.”
The Europeans, like the generals at the Pentagon, are concerned about the quality of intelligence. A senior European intelligence official said that while “there was every reason to assume” that the Iranians were working on a bomb, there wasn’t enough evidence to exclude the possibility that they were bluffing, and hadn’t moved beyond a civilian research program.
The intelligence official was not optimistic about the current negotiations. “It’s a mess, and I don’t see any possibility, at the moment, of solving the problem,” he said. “The only thing to do is contain it. The question is, What is the redline? Is it when you master the nuclear fuel cycle? Or is it just about building a bomb?” Every country had a different criterion, he said. One worry he had was that, in addition to its security concerns, the Bush Administration was driven by its interest in “democratizing” the region. “The United States is on a mission,” he said.
A European diplomat told me that his government would be willing to discuss Iran’s security concerns — a dialogue he said Iran offered Washington three years ago. The diplomat added that “no one wants to be faced with the alternative if the negotiations don’t succeed: either accept the bomb or bomb them. That’s why our goal is to keep the pressure on, and see what Iran’s answer will be.”
A second European diplomat, speaking of the Iranians, said, “Their tactic is going to be to stall and appear reasonable — to say, ‘Yes, but . . .’ We know what’s going on, and the timeline we’re under. The Iranians have repeatedly been in violation of I.A.E.A. safeguards and have given us years of coverup and deception. The international community does not want them to have a bomb, and if we let them continue to enrich that’s throwing in the towel — giving up before we talk.” The diplomat went on, “It would be a mistake to predict an inevitable failure of our strategy. Iran is a regime that is primarily concerned with its own survival, and if its existence is threatened it would do whatever it needed to do — including backing down.”
The Iranian regime’s calculations about its survival also depend on internal political factors. The nuclear program is popular with the Iranian people, including those — the young and the secular — who are most hostile to the religious leadership. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, has effectively used the program to rally the nation behind him, and against Washington. Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics have said that they believe Bush’s goal is not to prevent them from building a bomb but to drive them out of office.
Several current and former officials I spoke to expressed doubt that President Bush would settle for a negotiated resolution of the nuclear crisis. A former high-level Pentagon civilian official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the government, said that Bush remains confident in his military decisions.
The President and others in the Administration often invoke Winston Churchill, both privately and in public, as an example of a politician who, in his own time, was punished in the polls but was rewarded by history for rejecting appeasement. In one speech, Bush said, Churchill “seemed like a Texan to me. He wasn’t afraid of public-opinion polls. . . . He charged ahead, and the world is better for it.”
The Israelis have insisted for years that Iran has a clandestine program to build a bomb, and will do so as soon as it can. Israeli officials have emphasized that their “redline” is the moment Iran masters the nuclear fuel cycle, acquiring the technical ability to produce weapons-grade uranium. “Iran managed to surprise everyone in terms of the enrichment capability,” one diplomat familiar with the Israeli position told me, referring to Iran’s announcement, this spring, that it had successfully enriched uranium to the 3.6-percent level needed to fuel a nuclear-power reactor. The Israelis believe that Iran must be stopped as soon as possible, because, once it is able to enrich uranium for fuel, the next step — enriching it to the ninety-per-cent level needed for a nuclear bomb — is merely a mechanical process.
Israeli intelligence, however, has also failed to provide specific evidence about secret sites in Iran, according to current and former military and intelligence officials. In May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Washington and, addressing a joint session of Congress, said that Iran “stands on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons” that would pose “an existential threat” to Israel.
Olmert noted that Ahmadinejad had questioned the reality of the Holocaust, and he added, “It is not Israel’s threat alone. It is a threat to all those committed to stability in the Middle East and to the well-being of the world at large.” But at a secret intelligence exchange that took place at the Pentagon during the visit, the Pentagon consultant said, “what the Israelis provided fell way short” of what would be needed to publicly justify preventive action.
The issue of what to do, and when, seems far from resolved inside the Israeli government. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, told me, “Israel would like to see diplomacy succeed, but they’re worried that in the meantime Iran will cross a threshold of nuclear know-how — and they’re worried about an American military attack not working. They assume they’ll be struck first in retaliation by Iran.” Indyk added, “At the end of the day, the United States can live with Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian nuclear bombs — but for Israel there’s no Mutual Assured Destruction. If they have to live with an Iranian bomb, there will be a great deal of anxiety in Israel, and a lot of tension between Israel and Iran, and between Israel and the US.”
Iran has not, so far, officially answered President Bush’s proposal. But its initial response has been dismissive. In a June 22nd interview with the Guardian, Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, rejected Washington’s demand that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment before talks could begin. “If they want to put this prerequisite, why are we negotiating at all?” Larijani said. “We should put aside the sanctions and give up all this talk about regime change.”
He characterized the American offer as a “sermon,” and insisted that Iran was not building a bomb. “We don’t want the bomb,” he said. Ahmadinejad has said that Iran would make a formal counterproposal by August 22nd, but last week Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, declared, on state radio, “Negotiation with the United States has no benefits for us.”
Despite the tough rhetoric, Iran would be reluctant to reject a dialogue with the United States, according to Giandomenico Picco, who, as a representative of the United Nations, helped to negotiate the ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq War, in 1988. “If you engage a superpower, you feel you are a superpower,” Picco told me. “And now the haggling in the Persian bazaar begins. We are negotiating over a carpet” — the suspected weapons program — “that we’re not sure exists, and that we don’t want to exist. And if at the end there never was a carpet it’ll be the negotiation of the century.”
If the talks do break down, and the Administration decides on military action, the generals will, of course, follow their orders; the American military remains loyal to the concept of civilian control. But some officers have been pushing for what they call the “middle way,” which the Pentagon consultant described as “a mix of options that require a number of Special Forces teams and air cover to protect them to send into Iran to grab the evidence so the world will know what Iran is doing.”
He added that, unlike Rumsfeld, he and others who support this approach were under no illusion that it could bring about regime change. The goal, he said, was to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the I.A.E.A., said in a speech this spring that his agency believed there was still time for diplomacy to achieve that goal. “We should have learned some lessons from Iraq,” ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said. “We should have learned that we should be very careful about assessing our intelligence. . . . We should have learned that we should try to exhaust every possible diplomatic means to solve the problem before thinking of any other enforcement measures.”
He went on, “When you push a country into a corner, you are always giving the driver’s seat to the hard-liners. . . . If Iran were to move out of the nonproliferation regime altogether, if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon program, we clearly will have a much, much more serious problem.”
© The New Yorker.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.